The end of the year gives us an opportunity to reflect on the past and engage in envisioning our future. We look back at a year of costly GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling battles that drained over seven million dollars from pro-labeling funders’ coffers. The momentum we achieved was exhilarating until it became obvious that we were being outspent and undermined by erroneous messaging. Washington State fell by narrow margins reminiscent of the California defeat.
Victories and Defeats in 2013
We witnessed a victory in Connecticut where the voters approved a bill requiring that all foods that contain GMOs be labeled. It was an auspicious day when Governor Dannel Malloy hosted a ceremonial signing outside an organic restaurant in Fairfield, CT to commemorate the state’s passage of what could be the first GMO labeling law of its type in the United States. This bill has it flaws, as it requires that at least four other Northeastern states with a combined popularity of at least 20 million approve similar bills before it can officially go into effect. Happily the voters in Maine have passed a near-identical measure.
Congress too got involved in the game in 2013 when Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a GMO labeling bill that has 14 co-sponsors. A companion bill on the House side, introduced by Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., has 48 co-sponsors. The bills however are languishing with little momentum and opponents have their own language in the wings.
According to documents leaked from The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), members intend to pursue a federal preemption which would effectively outlaw state labeling initiatives. They also announced their intention to petition the FDA to issue a regulation that would allow foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled ‘natural.’ This means GMO corn, soy, canola and sugar could all bear the confusing “Natural” label casting more doubt and perplexity in the labeling universe.
In late December Senator Feinstein urged President Obama to use the power of his office to require labels on food containing genetically engineered ingredients. Feinstein wrote: “It is my strong opinion that consumers have the right to know whether their food originates from genetically modified organisms. Your administration should re-evaluate the Food and Drug Administration’s outdated policy that genetically engineered food does not need to disclose this fact on required labels.” Additionally, the Center for Food Safety, on behalf of several other organizations and businesses, filed a formal Legal Petition to the FDA to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. With these kinds of prominent requests, perhaps the future will hold a triumph in food transparency.
What does the future hold?
The Right to Know GMO website displays a map of states with pending and active GMO labeling legislation. As we look ahead to 2014, many people are convinced that a labeling effort in Oregon is a worthwhile endeavor. Meanwhile, Washington State plans to regroup for another ballot measure in 2016.
How do we move forward?
What options do we have to change the political dynamics in future labeling initiatives? How do we handle exemptions in certain areas of the food chain? How do we message that the cost of labeling is overstated and not truly an issue? For starters, the esteemed scientist Chuck Benbrook suggested “the positive case for labeling as a public health initiative needs to be more forcefully presented.”
Additionally, we can neutralize one of the strongest arguments of the opposition: that GMO labeling should be done at the federal level so as to avoid 50 different approaches. This could be done in future state propositions by adding a provision that says, in effect, “For the next two to three years, the State Secretary of Agriculture will encourage through all possible means the adoption of a federal GMO labeling program. This shall be harmonized with existing programs already in place in the EU, Japan and other major trading partners. In the absence of the adoption of such a GMO food labeling program at the federal level, the Secretary of Agriculture shall initiate steps to create a state GMO food labeling program.”
A provision such as this might be viewed as a constructive way to encourage a positive outcome at the federal level while still getting the job done in the state.
Despite the ebb and flow of events I believe that GMO labeling will become a reality in our future. National labeling is the key to success and makes the most sense for everyone. The question is not if but when. Let’s regroup around a national initiative that over 93% of consumers support. Isn’t it time that we join the other 64 nations that label GMOs? I raise a toast to our GMO free future!